Saturday, May 14, 2005

China as the source of culture for Japan, and all about Japan's tendency to be seasonal about everything

Just as almost all aspects of modern European culture have their basis in Rome and Greece, much of Japan's culture was based on Chinese elements, either imported directly or filtered through the Korean Peninsula. Many areas of Japanese life, from the architecture to the writing system to the structure of early government, originally hail from China. The Japanese pay a lot of attention to the principles of feng shui, and try to design homes and cities so that the layout will promote the flow of positive energy -- the choice of Edo (Tokyo) as the national capital was made in part because it's exactly northeast of Kyoto, which has a special meaning according to feng shui. The Japanese also follow eto, the Chinese sexagenary cycle, the complex system of twelve animals that cycle through each year -- my wife and I were both born in the Year of the Monkey. Although the Japanese adopted the Western calendar in the Meiji Era, they still remember the Chinese New Year with Setsubun, on February 5, a day when Japanese kids throw beans at imaginary devils to chase them out of the house.

One thing about Japan: it's a very seasonal place. Spring is beautiful with its short-lived cherry blossoms, summer is hot and humid with many festivals, fall is filled with crisp brown leaves, and winter is cold and frosty. I've met Japanese who tell me with great pride that, unlike America, Japan has four distinct seasons, and they enjoy every one of them -- apparently these people haven't ventured outside of Southern California. Japanese people tend to avoid being kisetsu-hazure (ki-SET-tsu ha-ZOO-ray), doing the wrong things for the wrong season. In an ESL textbook once there was a picture of a boy flying a kite in summer. But in Japan, flying traditional kites (tako) is nearly always done around New Year's Day, so my students were amazed at the picture.

Japan's tendency to be very seasonal extends to other aspects of daily life. Swimsuits are sold in the summer months, and calendars sold at the end of the year -- don't even bother trying to find something that's out of season, it won't be available. When fruits are in season, they're ripe and delicious, but since Japan doesn't import much fruit from other parts of the world like America does, when something is out of season it's not available for love or money. Strawberries are in season in Japan now, but they won't be for long, so last weekend we took the kids to a place in the mountains where you can eat as many strawberries off the vine as you want for $8 per person. They were delicious.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The origins of the Japanese flag, wacky theme parks found in Japan, and a whale who became an idol

The Japanese flag, with its red circle against a white background, has got to be one of the most recognizable images in the world. Called the Hinomaru (which means "circle of the sun"), this symbol of Japan has been around since the 12th century. Although it obviously represents the sun in the sky, since the name given to Japan by China (Nihon or Nippon) means "origin of the sun," the colors represent the ancient clans of Heike and Genji, who fought for control of of the country during the Genpei war (1180-1185). Eventually the Genji, who identified with the white star Rigel, defeated the Heike, who took red Betelgeuse as their symbol, which was expressed by larger area of white with the red center on the flag. The Hinomaru has another meaning in modern life: women draw little Japanese flags in their schedule notebooks to remember when their time of the month will be, and the word hatabi ("flag day") is a euphemism for this.

Japan may be famous for its ultra-cute teenage stars like Aya Ueto and Morning Musume, but marine animals sometimes make popular idols, too. When a 7.9-meter long grey whale swam into Tokyo Bay on April 28th, he became an instant celebrity, with parents making use of the Golden Week holidays to take their kids to the bay so they could see the natural wonder for themselves. Sadly, the whale, who was named Sora-chan, got trapped in some fishing nets and couldn't escape, and was found dead this morning. In 2002, a seal swam up Tokyo's Tamagawa river to find himself a media star, with daily news reports on the comings and goings of "Tama-chan."

Like other developed countries, Japanese like to go to theme parks to relax and have fun, and sometimes these parks can be quite, ah, original. In the mountains above our house there's a replica of a rural Bavarian town called Kronenberg, also known as Doitsu-mura, which means German Village. There you can find good beer, delicious sausages, and lots of embarrassed-looking Germans in traditional dress. If Hello Kitty is your thing, you should check out Sanrio World in Tokyo, which features the entire pantheon of Sanrio characters in life-sized versions. If you ever visit Nikko, a nice city north of Tokyo, there are several interesting attractions to check out, including Edo-mura, a replica of a samurai village; the slightly silly Western-mura, an Old West town complete with real gaijin cowboys; and Tobu World Square, where you can see famous sights from around the world recreated in 1/25 scale. In addition to these uniquely Japanese places, you can also take in Japanese versions of U.S. theme parks, such as Tokyo Disneyland and University Studios Japan in Osaka.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Understanding Japan through its cute characters, and duality in learning Japanese language

There are many ways to approach an understanding of Japan, through the classical aspects of the country, through its music, or else by immersing yourself in the joyful confusion of modern pop culture. If you are so inclined, you can also try to understand Japan through its "cult of cuteness," expressed in the endless stream of kawaii original characters that exist here. When Shintaro Tsuji started the Yamanashi Silk Center Co. to make cute greeting cards -- actively copying the business model of the Hallmark corporation, which he had great respect for -- he probably had no idea what a huge effect the company he'd later rename Sanrio was going to have on the world. Since the introduction of Hello Kitty in 1974, Japan has seen a near-constant stream of characters for every taste, including creations with "calculated cuteness" by Sanrio (Merry Melody, Bad Batz Maru), bizarre characters that are almost self-parodies (Afro-ken, the dog with a rainbow-colored 'fro and Kogepan, a character based on a burned roll at the bakery that no one wants to buy), anti-characters (the suicidally depressed Gloomy Bear), and characters that represent every day objects (Ochaken and Occhan, which capitalize on the popularity of green tea here). Characters are even made of objects you couldn't possibly consider cute: today we're posting a pen featuring a cute little pink unchi (poop) character. Kawaii!

When you learn a language that's as different from English as Japanese is, there are bound to be a lot of rough patches where the meanings of words don't fit together perfectly. In English we only need one word to express concepts like brother or cold, but in Japanese there are separate terms for older and younger brother (oniisan/ototo) and for the concepts of cold to the touch vs. coldness in the air (tsumetai/samui). Some basic household words like ojisan and obasan, meaning uncle and aunt, pull double duty as generic terms for any middle-aged man or woman you meet on the street, too. After you assign dual meanings to linguistic concepts long enough, your brain gets used to it and starts recognizing patterns, making it easier. Thankfully, there are times when two concepts in English will boil down to just one word in Japanese, such as the words shy and embarrassed, which can both be expressed as hazukashii in Japanese even though the nuances are slightly different in English. I remember back as an English teacher, trying to help my students grapple with the differences between the words ironic, sarcastic and cynical, all of which can be expressed with a single concept in Japanese (iyami).